To watch an episode of the new ABC Family show Pretty Little Liars is to conjure an image of the focus group that no doubt spawned the show's concept: one visualizes a round-table of youth culture experts excitedly throwing out ideas: "Gossip Girl meets CSI!" or "Sweet Valley High plus Nancy Drew multiplied by The Craft and divided by Melrose Place!" It's the reasonable response to have, because Pretty Little Liars presents itself as a shameless jumble of ready-made concepts. Even the show's tagline, "Never trust a pretty girl with a secret," seems designed to elicit thoughtless nods. It's not a show that asks viewers to stop and ponder a single thing. It's textbook summer entertainment.
Based on a young adult novel series by the author Sara Shepard, the show revolves around the abduction and murder of one Alison DiLaurentis, the pretty ringleader of her high-school clique. In the years following Alison's death, her high-school friends receive text messages from a mysterious "A" and grapple with secrets of varying salacity: a lesbian romance, an affair with a teacher, cheating parents, a lab explosion, and plenty of intrigue surrounding the circumstances of Alison's death. The acting is hammy and the characters straight from Central Casting, with the show's four lead actresses designated the jock, the nerd, the babe and the artsy one. This is the television equivalent of canned whipped cream: cheap, sweet and easy.
But during the summer months, at least, there's something refreshing about a show’s naked adherence to a formula, and Pretty Little Liars inhabits its conventions the way good genre fiction does, by building layers of suspense upon a bedrock of familiar rules. The New York Times's Gina Bellafante praised the show's "addictive soapiness" and called it "the next best thing to surveillance video," and I'm happy to report that message boards are on fire with Pretty Little Liars exegesis and favorable comparisons to Gossip Girl. With the recent (and rather depressing) news of Lindsay Lohan’s ninety-day jail sentence, it comes as a distinct relief to turn our attention to fictional bad girls, whose crimes and misdemeanors remain happily consequence-free.
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